Lather, rinse, repeat.
I admit I've never had much interest in the Monster Hunter series over the years. It's on the level of a Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto in Japan, but three things kept me from picking up any of the previous games: I didn't have a PSP; I didn't have anyone to play co-op with; and when Monster Hunter Tri landed on the Wii with online multiplayer in 2010, I no longer had a Wii to play it on.
But with millions of fans supporting the franchise in Japan, I've always had Monster Hunter on the brain in some capacity or another. How could a franchise with such a huge base be so unappealing to me and much of the Western market? In the process of reviewing Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, a port of Tri for 3DS and Wii U, I tried to look for the elements that make the series so compelling for so many, and why it took me until now to jump on board and love Monster Hunter.
As in Tri, players call a small fishing village home. There, adventurers can upgrade equipment, shop for new items, trade in quests, and accept new ones from the Guild Sweetheart. Eventually you'll use the Guild to accept the missions that pit you against the massive beasts in Monster Hunter, but for the first two or three hours, you'll be running errands for the Chief and his son, Junior. This opening sequence may prove too excruciating for many players, as it almost was for me.
When you first set out, you do so to gather enough resources for your base camp. Any monsters you see die with a few slashes and the objectives will melt your brain with boredom. Gather plants and mushrooms? If I wanted to do that, I'd play "Outside U", where the entirety of nature is my peripheral. It doesn't help that the textures in some of MH3U's environments look worse than a PS2-era licensed game. However, if players can invest the time required by this meddlesome tutorial section, they'll find that Monster Hunter opens into a varied and deep adventure with a measured grind.
Most of Capcom's work in upscaling the game for the Wii U went into the monsters themselves. When you first see your target, it inspires awe. This is aided by the fact that you can't see the monster's health or stats before you start the fight. Players have to watch for its animations to change or work together with others to cleave limbs off to know how much damage they have left to deal. It turns the otherwise digital victims of your furious button-mashing into mythical, mysterious beasts of the unknown. Such a subtle break in communication with the player adds so much to the experience as a whole.
Of course most of your time interacting with the beasts will be whittling away at their health, tagging them with paintballs to track their movement from zone to zone and ultimately landing the killing blow on a weakened enemy. It can feel like hours between an initial strike and the final cry of pain, and for that I'm not sure the experience can hold up without the aid of a few friends.
Somewhere around hour fifteen, I decided to hop online and get a group together for a few quests. Playing with other people over the internet is only possible on the Wii U version of the game. Friends can get together and play over ad-hoc Wi-Fi on the 3DS version of MH3U, but online is limited to the console. You can also tie three 3DS units to a single Wii U and play multiplayer with a grand total of eight screens in your living room. Partnering up with fellow hunters made a drastic difference in the hunting experience, turning a combat grind into a group effort, enriched by the aid I was offered by another player. It felt like I served a special role in bringing down a monster.
It was the moments immediately following a big kill that enraptured me to the experience I had failed to understand or even try my hand at in the past. When you've killed your target and its lying there in front of your party, there's a moment's hesitation before everyone starts to shave off the spoils of their work. Holding the A button and listening to the noise of the blade and the jingle that plays when your reward is revealed is like that moment when you open the cap on a soda bottle just enough so that the pressure hisses in reply.
It's quaint and it's antithetical to the not-so-subtle carrot-and-stick program Call of Duty hooks gamers with. Shaving off the resources from a big monster is like making it to the bathroom in the nick of time. All the pressure and worry in the midst of a fight is released and all you feel is relief.
I realized then that the best parts of Monster Hunter couldn't really be shared by word of mouth. You just had to try it for yourself. Despite how great it felt to rely on a cooperative partner for a much-needed first aid, despite how awestruck I was at MH3U's biggest enemies, it was the ultimately relaxing and reliable rhythm of search, fight, and reap that hooked me.
That doesn't mean this MH3U isn't without a few issues. Many of the environments, models, and textures have no business in HD. A few nagging control issues make for awkward offensive and defensive maneuvers in the field. Ultimate can feel like a portable game, even when you're playing on the Wii U, but the overall presentation is passable. Both versions struggle with underwater battles (of which there are many), but the 3DS version of Ultimate nearly collapses in on itself thanks to one input oversight.
Many 3DS owners will find themselves in desperate need of a Circle Pad Pro attachment for Monster Hunter on the go. There's a directional input on the 3DS touchscreen, but it's impossible to use it while actively engaging in combat. That'd be true even if the 3DS had a second circle pad, but at least you wouldn't have to clumsily switch between stylus and thumb. I'd excuse this quickly, but the 3DS XL completely lacks a second circle pad option. It's an failure on the part of both Capcom and Nintendo, and I couldn't let it go throughout my time with the portable version of the game.
Despite the handheld port's shortcomings, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate proves itself entertaining to anyone willing to put in the time. You'll get out of it what you put in and with a little patience, a little determination, and a suspended sense of cynicism, days of entertainment can be reaped. I've abandoned the 3DS version of the game, but Capcom gives the Wii U another shot in the arm in MH3U.
Whether you're playing online or solo in your home village, Monster Hunter exhilarates and excites with the same kind of thrill you'd get from climbing a mountain or conquering a fear you never knew you had. It might not be the prettiest game, but it succeeds in tying your emotions to the action on screen, whether that means dashing your excitement in a narrow defeat or encouraging you to pick a bigger fight after an illustrious victory.
Copies provided by publisher. Review based on 3DS and Wii U versions. Available on 3DS and Wii U.